America Dithers While the Middle East Burns
While apprehension among Gulf states about the Iranian nuclear agreement has been widely circulated, responses to the deal from Washington’s non-GCC Arab allies have been less publicized. U.S. allies like Egypt, Jordan and non-Arab Turkey have not had a Camp David of their own to voice concerns to Washington, but their reticent responses are telling symptoms of unease about Iranian subversion and hegemonic aspirations.
In initial diplomatic reactions, surface-level optimism failed to cloak fears of Iran’s mounting regional influence. In Ankara, Economy Minister Mehmet Simsek and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu touted the economic boost Turkey will receive from the agreement, but demanded that Tehran “abandon sectarian politics” and discontinue its regional policies. Cairo’s response likewise zeroed in on the deal’s broader implications for Iran's regional interventionism, as evidenced by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s uninspired statement expressing hope that the agreement “prevents an arms race in the Middle East...ensuring the region is free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.” Similarly, Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications said that the kingdom supports “any deal which asserts peace and security in the Middle East” and “prevents arms race in the region,” but added that it was “following up” on the deal’s details and that Jordanian ministers remained in contact with main parties to the agreement, including Secretary Kerry.
The ambivalence from Amman undoubtedly prompted Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s meeting with King Abdullah II and visit to Jordan last month. It is also the likely impetus for the resumption earlier this month of the U.S.-Egyptian Strategic Dialogue, postponed since 2009, even though the dialogue focused on counterterrorism, economic opportunities, and cooperation on regional issues and mentioned Iran only in the context of pushing for a “comprehensive implementation” of the nuclear accord.
Underneath the diplomacy, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey view an agreement with Iran as Washington’s green light for Tehran to continue subversive and destabilizing support for proxy forces in the Arab world. Turkey fears that Iran will use its earnings from sanctions relief to ramp up support for Assad, Ankara’s primary foe in Syria. A foiled terror plot backed by the Iran-sponsored Bayt al-Maqdis in northern Jordan on the eve of the nuclear deal has reignited fears that Tehran seeks to undermine the Kingdom’s domestic security. Egypt, aspiring to reassert its regional clout and blunt Iranian expansion into the Gulf, has thrown its support behind the Saudi-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen despite Nasser’s disastrous intervention there in the 1960s. Ignored at the time by the United States, King Abdullah II’s 2004 warning of an Iran-led “Shi’a Crescent” encircling the Levant may be imminently becoming reality.
So how will these states really respond? The first suggestion has been that these states develop nuclear weapons of their own. However, this frequently posited proposition is woefully misguided. Iran has been covertly enriching uranium for decades, and a deal scaling back its program is not bound to suddenly provoke a nuclear race. Moreover, these states were never truly concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the first place. Turkey, Jordan and Egypt are looking to develop their own civilian nuclear programs to confront rising energy insecurity and electricity demand and have turned to Russia to do so, but this does not amount into anything other than economic interest unless Washington wishes to stem Moscow’s Middle East nuclear energy investments for the long-term strategic shifts they could precipitate.
A second possibility—and a far more likely one— is regional conflict escalation. Washington’s rapprochement with Iran, hesitancy to act in Syria, and ineptitude against ISIS in Iraq have left regional allies with the perception that they must take actions into their own hands. Turkey and long-standing Arab powers now consider any real or perceived maneuver by Iran as a major threat necessitating an immediate and heavy response. This is currently playing out in Yemen with lamentable humanitarian consequences. To be sure, Jordan and Egypt are only cautious participants in the coalition against the Houthis—Egypt has deployed warships to protect its own maritime trade channels, and Jordan has provided only a handful of warplanes. Nevertheless, while they are pragmatic enough not to stumble impulsively into regional conflicts, they are too concerned about Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions to stand by. If the coalition succeeds in driving out the Houthis, the campaign in Yemen could serve as a bloody and foreboding precedent for regional states in confronting Iran—something no one really wants.